Homelessness, an Initial Inquiry

Homelessness is a persistent problem in US cities and elsewhere. Homelessness should not be viewed in isolation, as it is coupled with health, career, family and socio-economic context. Recent innovations in approach to addressing homelessness and associated problems in the US, particularlyhousing first,” have been hailed as major advances by providing housing and services, without imposed limitations around behavior or curfews. Still, the problem is far from resolved. NECSI dedicated both of our July salons to the topic of homelessness, as well as returning to the topic in October.

We started by building a basic map of the problem/solution space of homelessness — what is the current understanding, strategies to address it and key actors? Participants in our discussion group have contributed to an ever-growing list of initiatives, research, and reflections on this topic.

The difficulties in effective response to homelessness include a mismatch of complexity and scale similar to problems in the health care system. The capabilities of response organizations do not match the scale across the population and complexity of individual circumstances. An industrial one-size-fits-all approach does not address diverse individual problems, but efficiency is necessary in order to address the largest scale societal aspects of the problem at sustainable cost. Moreover, there is limited effort to analyze the underlying drivers and the opportunity to change them so that the problem itself diminishes in scale.

Among the issues that may be exacerbating the problem: weak social support systems of family and community; poor state of mental health care; lack of ready access to adequate medical care; the coupling of poverty, crime and a revolving door prison system; economic developments affecting the relationship of employment opportunities, income and housing costs; geographical dimensions of housing; and the increasing complexity of successful participation in the socio-economic system. We can consider the dynamics of individual participation in society and how it can be disrupted. People may be compelled to depart from established paths of societal participation due to medical emergencies, family conflict, mental health complications, employment problems, or even endemic poverty. Such individuals can get caught in what appear to be similar to the turbulent eddies that accompany rapid flows of fluids, cycling in and then out of jail, halfway houses, homeless shelters or other short-term “solutions.” Escaping these cycles to restore effective participation in society is difficult to achieve without addressing the entire context. The barrier to to such an escape appears ever growing. Prevention may not attract sufficient attention when the limited support programs are available only in extreme cases. In short, by stripping away social support, we’ve made the gaps through which some might fall wider and deeper.

Many cities and organizations are engaged in solving the problem of homelessness, demonstrating a variety of approaches with lessons about what is and is not effective under different circumstances. These initiatives address: access to housing, work, food, healthcare; specific needs such as mental health, addiction, youth & family services; support networks including mentors, social contact with wider community, support for marginalized groups. Enhancing coordination among various types of activities may increase effectiveness. From a complex systems perspective, separating different types of activities may limit their ability to address the complexity of individual circumstances, and perhaps also the scale of the problem across many individuals, but may also enhance innovation. Innovation is particularly helpful if there are opportunities for subsequent integration or scaling up of these efforts. Few efforts are focused on addressing underlying societal drivers, such as reforming the mental health, legal or prison systems. Recent attention to minimum wage can be considered part of the larger framework of economic issues that impact homelessness among other societal problems.

The benefits of resolving these issues are massive — ethically, as well as pragmatically. Ethically, housing can be linked to basic human rights. The rights of the individual, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, cannot be viewed independently of the systems that enable them to have or exercise those rights. Society also benefits by providing systems that enable individuals to contribute to collective advancement through economic activity and social participation. Pragmatically, the cost of effective safety nets that enable individuals to be productive members of society are lower for many individuals than the alternative — providing housing and rehabilitation for marginalized individuals. Resulting costs include food and shelter, uninsured health care, law enforcement, prisons, etc. When individuals are marginalized, multiple problems reinforce each other. This is compatible with the mathematical model of an attractor in which multiple interacting components self-consistently reinforce a system state.

Cities across the country are renewing their focus on this topic. The White House’s ‘Opening Doors’ initiative asked cities to make 2015 the year ending veteran and chronic homelessness. This time of renewed attention may provide a chance to apply complex systems theory locally, in practice. We are seeking partners with whom to develop a program of engagement, analysis and policy recommendations in our area, and beyond.